Five Ways to Win Over Customers

Small gestures can help turn new clients into regulars. Here are a handful you can put into practice within your own business

On a recent weekend this November, dozens of strangers wished my daughter a happy birthday. The strangers were employees at the Disneyland Resort (DIS) in Anaheim, Calif., who were trained to look for buttons affixed to children's clothing (known as "birthday badges") and to acknowledge each child by name. Such a simple gesture, I thought. But it a made our collective experience a whole lot better.

I later learned Disney employees are trained to make the little things in each customer's day "1% better." The premise is that more often than not, it's a seemingly insignificant gesture that helps turns a new customer into a regular. Today, business owners are facing the toughest economic climate in decades and are reluctant to spend money to attract new customers. Here are five inexpensive ways you can put my premise about small gestures into practice.

1. Address customers by name. Disney's birthday badges work because the most pleasant sounding word in any language is the sound of your own name. Jennifer Elizondo owns health food store Navan Foods in Virginia Beach, Va. When I asked Elizondo what she does on a daily basis to make her customers feel appreciated, she explained: "I learn their names and address them by name the next time they come into the store. It shows respect." Elizondo said one customer entered her store after visiting a competitor and remarked that Elizondo's competition offered cheaper prices, but Elizondo provided a better experience that was worth the extra cost. Another customer said, "It's weird to walk to into a store and have someone say 'Hi' and call you by name.'" Think about it. So few people are called by name that it becomes weird to hear it. Be weird. Learn names.

2. Send handwritten thank-you notes. Several small business owners have told me they send handwritten notes to stand out. When is the last time you sent a note to a valued customer? You don't need to send many. If your business is like most others, the top 20% of your customers generate 80% of your income. If sending notes to each of your clients seems overwhelming, at least focus on the top 20. Rebecca Brian runs Tribecca Designs, a graphic design firm with offices in New York and San Francisco. She takes pride in forming long-lasting relationships with her customers. When I asked her what she does specifically to foster these relationships, she said: "After every in-person meeting, we follow up with a quick handwritten thank-you note. The…sentiments we express go a long way."

3. Respond to potential customers within 24 hours. Robert Brown owns a small dance studio in Jersey City. Brown told me it's the small day-to-day communications with customers that keep them coming back. For example, it's policy at his Jersey City Dance Academy for all e-mails and phone calls to be returned within 24 hours. Sure enough, when I sent Brown a follow-up e-mail, he responded personally within 30 minutes—early on a Sunday morning!

4. Greet customers with eye contact, a smile, and a warm greeting. This might seem obvious—but does your staff follow your example? Many do not. Earlier this year I interviewed Shirlene Lopez (, 7/25/08), CEO of Mexican restaurant chain Del Taco, who showed me a cardboard advertisement that its restaurants carry on their front counters. On the front of the card, customers see an ad for milk shakes. On the back, restaurant employees see a reminder to smile and make eye contact. Lopez believes these nonverbal signals are very important. "Customers will remember how they are acknowledged when they enter a place of business. Something as simple as a smile can transform a transaction into a memorable experience," Lopez said.

5. Communicate with customers when they least expect it. Most businesses send holiday cards. Will yours stand out? Probably not. However, several small business owners have told me they look for other times of the year to communicate appreciation. One person sends all of her clients thank-you notes on Thanksgiving. This year at my firm we decided to send bottles of wine to clients on Valentine's Day with a note, "We love our clients."

You might be watching your budget these days, but you still have chances to win over customers with these inexpensive touches. Remember, small gestures can make a lasting impact.

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